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  • Writer's pictureKatey Halbert

Kay Gardner's "The Elusive White Roebuck" (1986)

My research for this work and its composer comes from my final degree project from the University of Iowa entitled “Works for Horn and Piano by American Female Composers”. This topic stemmed from the current lack of diversity within the standard classical horn canon, and focused exclusively on works that had never been commercially recorded and many that had also never been formally published. The works included in that project were by composers Dorothy Dushkin, Gena Branscombe, Catherine McMichael, as well as Kay Gardner. I found Kay Gardner’s work initially by title only in another doctoral dissertation that was a catalogue of works for horn by women. However, that was just the start of my search.

This work was self-published by Gardner under the publishing company name of Sea Gnomes Music. The corresponding website is still searchable on the internet, and you can see the variety of works she composed in addition to her CD’s. LPs, and other creative endeavors. However, after she passed away in 2002 the site stopped accepting orders, and all contact information is either out of date or they are dead links. I was able to find the Elusive White Roebuck through Interlibrary Loan - the only available score for public use is through Washington University of St. Louis, but it is score-only - there’s no separate horn part. When I received the score, I flushed out the horn part in a music notation software, and that’s when I was able to hear her work for the first time.

Before I talk more about the piece, let me first give you some details on Kay Gardner’s life and musical journey.

Kay Gardner was born in Freeport, New York in 1941. Her musical career began when she publicly performed her own composition on the piano at the age of four. Her career continued on the flute when she was eight years old and would continue to be her primary instrument through college. She studied music at the University of Michigan and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. At both schools her focus was flute performance - her compositional career took off following her graduation.

Gardner produced seventeen albums during her career under both her own independent record label and another named Ladyslipper. These albums include both her compositions and the works of other women. Her music became a leading voice in the feminist movement of the 1970s when she produced the first openly gay LP entitled “Lavender Jane Loves Women” in 1973.

She spent years researching the history of women’s influence in music, going back to the times of early Greece. She found that the philosopher and priest, Plutarch attributed the creation of the Mixolydian mode to the female lyricist and poet, Sappho. Sappho was called "The Tenth Muse” and she was one of the nine lyric poets of archaic Greece - this meant that her works were studied by those wishing to claim that they were properly educated. It was believed that she led an aesthetic movement away from typical themes of gods to the themes of individual human experiences and emotions. Gardner greatly admired Sappho, and thus wrote many of her works, including the Elusive White Roebuck in mixolydian mode because she believed it had a stronger female influence in its sound. Many of her works are focused in modes rather than normal keys (major/minor) because she felt music that functioned under normal western harmonization rules sounded too militaristic and lacked aesthetic. In regards to musical form, she claimed that the music of female composers naturally had a different form than that of men. Specifically that women are more inclined to write in circular form due to their monthly hormonal cycle.

Beginning in 1976 Gardner started to establish a reputation for musical compositions that were designed for meditation on the eight energy centers of the body, also known as chakras. In an interview with Catherine Roma for the periodical “Contemporary Music Review” Gardner specifically talks about a work she composed for her album “Garden of Ecstasy” (released by Ladyslippers in 1989) The work is called “Viriditas” which is a word meaning vitality, lushness, or growth. It is particularly associated with abbess Hildegard von Bingen, who used it to refer to or symbolize spiritual and physical health, often as a reflection of the Divine Word or as an aspect of the divine nature. Gardner composed this work specifically to heal people suffering from AIDS. The specific timbres, vibrations, and rhythm used within this work concentrate on the chakra of the chest area which is associated with the immune system, and also focuses on the lungs. She uses pulsing in the vibrato of the various instruments, and the addition of drum to simulate heart pulses. She believed that the pace of one’s breathing would follow the pulse of the music, creating a trance-like state. The timbres of the double reed instruments and the pulsing of the overtones within the open-interval drones allow the opening and healing of the chest chakra.

Gardner believed that different instruments vibrated and connected with the various chakra centers. For example, she would use string orchestra for the heart, bass instruments for the belly, clarinet for the throat, and flutes and bells for the head.

Outside of her groundbreaking compositional techniques and albums, Gardner also became a community leader in the New England area. She was the music director and principal conductor of the New England Women’s Symphony in Boston as well as a guest conductor for a number of all-female ensembles. She also was the creator of a sacred singing choral group called Women with Wings which still performs today.

Her book, “Sounding the Inner Landscape: Music as Medicine” was published in 1990 which comprehensively covers all her beliefs in soundscapes and chakras healing. It is commonly used as a textbook for music therapy programs. She also continued to write articles for periodicals such as Women’s Music and Culture and other spiritual-based publications, and presented workshops and classes at universities such as the Michigan State University, University of California, Yale University and holistic centers such as the Omega Institute about the healing properties of music and sound.

One of her large scale works was a commission in 1989 of an oratorio that premiered in 1994 at the National Women’s Music Festival in Bloomington, Indiana. The work was written for a forty-piece orchestra, a choir of 100 women, and fifteen female soloists. The work was entitled Ouroboros: Seasons of Life: Women’s Passages and was produced by Ladyslipper Records. The oratorio musically portrays a woman’s life from birth to death using imagery of the “Triple Goddess” (maiden, mother and crone).

In 1995 she received the University of Maine’s Maryann Hartman Award, which is given to women to recognize their service and achievements that provide inspiration to women. In that same year she was given an honorary Doctorate in Fine Arts. Gardner passed away unexpectedly in 2002 from a heart attack.

Kay Gardner’s work for horn and piano was written in the fall of 1986. It was inspired following a visit of a horn player friend named Margaret Gage who lived in Grand Rapids at the time. Her inspiration for the work comes from a poem by Robert Graves called The White Goddess. Gardner’s program notes within her manuscript are as follows:

I wrote The Elusive White Roebuck in early fall 1986. Grand Rapids hornist, Margaret Gage, had stayed at my house in August and had done a lot of practicing. It seemed that horn notes hung in the air for days afterwards. I had no choice but to pluck them and gather them into a solo piece for horn and piano, my first.

Dedicated to poet, author and mystic, Robert Graves (b. 1895-d. 1986), The Elusive White Roebuck was inspired by the following paragraph from his 1948 classic, The White Goddess:

‘As for the White Roebuck, how many kings in how many fairy tales have chased this beast through enchanted forests and been cheated of their quarry? The Roebuck’s poetic meaning is ‘Hide the Secret’.’

As mentioned earlier, The Elusive White Roebuck has never been commercially recorded or published - so its place in the canon of horn repertoire has been scarce. The first known performance I was able to find of the Elusive White Roebuck was at a Society of Composers, Inc. regional conference at Wellesley College in April of 1989. The performance was by Richard Menaul, who was a Boston-based horn player. I also found that the piece was performed by a graduate student named Karl Kemm at the University of North Texas on November 24, 1997. Personally, I have performed this work once (for a doctoral degree recital while attending the University of Iowa) and professionally recorded it as part of my final doctoral project.

The story of the Elusive White Roebuck focuses on two characters - the deer and the hunter. The deer is voiced by the horn, and the hunter by the piano. The work opens with the call of the deer, which is an ascending interval of a minor 7th. It’s answered by the piano, which starts the section entitled “the chase”. The movement is fast and the two voices play back and forth colliding at times, but ultimately the deer gets away and runs into the distance.

The next movement is called “the calling” and has the horn and piano echoing back and forth. This is meant to simulate the hunter searching for the deer in the woods, and the deer calling in the distance. The movement has the words “ad lib” above the first measure, depicting that it should be played out of time, to the leisure of the performer, and that all sound should fade organically.

The third movement is a canon between the horn and piano as the roebuck escapes from the hunter through the thicket, and the story comes to end. This movement is in f dorian mode, which is associated with sounding minor, but the final chord ends in major to reveal the happy ending for the deer.

The final movement of the work is unique because it is meant to be from the perspective of the poet looking back on the memory of the story. You hear the call of the deer over the piano, both voices in two different modes, creating what is sometimes called “shimmering” texture which is caused by dissonance, and adds to the affect of a memory, being hazy and unclear. The return of the roebuck’s call in the horn brings the story to an end.


Barrett, Ruth. “Last Chorus: Kay Gardner (1940-2002).” Sing Out! The Folk Song Magazine, Winter 2003, 25-26.

Gardner, Kay. The Elusive White Roebuck: for horn and piano. (Massachusetts: SeaGnomes Publishing, 1986).

Gardner, Kay. “Kay Gardner: Musician, Composer, Sound Healer, Recording Artist.” Kay Gardner.

“Kay Gardner’s Legacy.” Women with Wings.

Kimball, Gayle, ed. Women’s Culture: The Women’s Renaissance of the Seventies. (London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1981).

Roma, Catherine. "The Healing Muse: An interview with Kay Gardner." Contemporary Music Review, Issue 16 1997, 99-104.

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